The Mississippi State Medical Association wants to snuff out smoking in workplaces statewide, including bars, restaurants and casinos.
And they want the public to help convince the Legislature next year to place a statewide ban on the ballot for voters to decide.
The Mississippi State Medical Association and other health care leaders announced a statewide signature drive Thursday that will allow Mississippians to sign a petition to be presented to legislators indicating their desire for a smoke-free Mississippi. The effort, "Physicians for a Smoke-Free Mississippi," will place the resources of 4,700 physicians and their patients behind the push to ban smoking throughout Mississippi.
"Our hope is that we can take these petitions and deliver them to the Legislature when they come back into session in 2015 and show them the degree of support the people of Mississippi have for smoke-free air, and we hope what will come from that is that the Legislature will allow the public to vote on the issue," said Dr. Steve Demetropoulos, immediate past president of the State Medical Association.
Going smoke-free in Mississippi is the most important thing that can be done to improve the health of fellow Mississippians, he said.
Demetropoulos said Thursday that's it's a no-brainer that a statewide policy is needed because secondhand smoke leads to 25 percent to 30 percent more incidents of cardiovascular disease.
"If we flip the switch tomorrow, we would start seeing a decrease in cardiovascular disease, strokes, pneumonia ... and it wouldn't cost us anything. That's the key to this whole thing. If we want to help the health of fellow Mississippians, this is the easiest way to do it."
The group and others will collect signatures on a petition, but the effort isn't seeking to force a ballot initiative referendum. Demetropoulos said the referendum process would be too time consuming and would require signatures of more than 130,000 registered voters.
The State Medical Association has pushed, without success, for the Legislature to pass a bill to implement a smoke-free policy that would prohibit smoking in most indoor places, including public buildings, workplaces, bars and restaurants.
In addition to the State Medical Association, other groups involved in working for a smoke-free environment include the Mississippi Department of Health, the Mississippi Chapter of Pediatricians, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the Partnership for A Healthy Mississippi, the Mississippi Hospital Association and others.
Demetropoulous said studies have shown that a majority of Mississippians favor a smoke-free environment. Also, he said, several years ago 945 restaurant owners supported a smoke-free environment.
But the effort to get a statewide ban has been met with resistance in the Legislature, which has members who smoke.
State Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said "I don't think there ought to be smoking in office buildings, but in bars and restaurants, that's another thing." Burton said.
Burton said he believes that if a person builds a building and invests his or her money in it, the owner ought to have a right to say what legal activity goes on there.
"I don't have a problem in requiring people to post a sign saying 'smoking allowed here' so people will know before they go in," Burton said.
During a legislative debate on smoking, state Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, wondered what impact a ban on smoking would have on casinos in the state.
Across-the state, 84 cities and towns have adopted smoke-free ordinances. However, less than 25 percent of Mississippians are protected by comprehensive, smoke-free workplace laws, according to the Medical Association.
Cindy Byrd of Jackson, a smoker, said she wouldn't have a problem with a statewide smoking ban because most places prohibit smoking on the premises.
However, Byrd and other smokers outside a downtown Jackson building said they don't believe there should be a smoking ban in casinos.